Meditation, Mindfulness, Extreme Sports, and Athletic Goals – 2023

Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©

The positive effects of meditation are now widely recognized, and the research on the effects of meditation are extensive and impressive. The benefits of meditation have been researched with various subgroups. It’s becoming clear that meditation is also proving extremely beneficial to athletes, including athletes who are maximizing their abilities or participating in extreme sport activities. In addition, there are many who are working to maintain their athletic ability as they move into middle age. There is also a small percentage who have a physical challenge, disability, or who are older, and are motivated and working hard to maximize their ability and accomplishments in spite of their limitations.

I am an 83 year old psychologist. Three and a half years ago, at 79, I started training in Tae Kwon Do. In October, 2022, at 83, I received my black belt. From age five to seventeen I took classes in ballet and acrobatics, and performed ballet at an advanced level. Later I participated in various sport activities. I worked out at athletic clubs most of my life, and I have had a regular practice of stretching and strengthening most mornings since the early 90’s. But in addition to that, I have trained in and practiced meditation for over thirty years. Beginning in 1991, I trained with a renowned Zen Master, Robert Aitken, Roshi, for the last six years before he retired, and then maintained communication with him until he died thirteen years later. He founded the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, and is known for his many books on Buddhist teaching. In 1997 I attended a three month practice period at Green Gulch Farm, part of the San Francisco Zen Center. The rigid schedule there included 4-40 minute meditation periods each day, two one day retreat days consisting of meditation periods all day from 5 AM until 9 PM, one three day retreat and one 8 day retreat. A practice period provides an opportunity free of normal life concerns and duties, and it provides a special environment for focus on a meditation practice. In order to keep the schedule and remain a participant you are, to a large extent, ignoring the preferences and needs that you normally experience and attend to day to day. In addition, for the serious Buddhist practitioner, a practice period allows for the possibility of spiritual or realization experiences.

Over the years I have studied Buddhism, trained at three different centers, and trained with three unique teachers. I have maintained a daily meditation practice since 2016. Meditation training has taught me how to focus my mind and concentrate, to experience time in a different way, to set goals, and to strive to be determined and disciplined, to persevere, and most of all, to develop endurance.

I have learned that there are many problems, challenges, and difficulties that athletes face. There are: psychological and emotional difficulties, personality difficulties and hindrances, and physical challenges.

Psychological and emotional difficulties may consist of low self esteem, unclear identity, anxiety, depression, doubts about abilities, and fear or anxiety related to athletic goals. With psychological and emotional difficulties, both psychotherapy and meditation are extremely helpful.

Personality difficulties or hindrances may be various challenges regarding character or personality formation, diagnoses that are obstacles to overcome, past stressors or trauma, or obsessive thinking tendencies. With more serious personality challenges, psychological or medical evaluation may be necessary.

Physical challenges include: injury, inconsistent performance, perfectionism, over or under exercising, insufficient support from coaches or family, or burnout. With physical challenges, of course medical evaluation or treatment may be needed. An appropriate carefully thought out exercise plan and specialized coaching will always benefit performance.

Mindfulness is sustained focus on sensory input in the present moment. In the book, Being Time, Shinshu Roberts states, “Setting time in array, is to occupy the fluctuating impermanence of the present moment as embodied in the self.” Jon Kabat Zinn states that mindfulness “means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Mindfulness is considered taking meditation off the cushion. You can think of it as both a precursor to and an effect of meditation. When we are mindful we are reducing mental chatter, and not dwelling in the future or the past. When we daydream or fantasize, focus on fears, or visualize future events, we we are focusing on the future. When we have regrets or remorse, when we have nostalgic feelings for past events, when we remember past events, even events last week or yesterday, we are focusing on the past. We can practice mindfulness in many activities of our daily lives that don’t require our full attention – taking a shower, brushing our teeth, washing the dishes, washing the car, walking, hiking, driving. The main effort is to focus on what we are seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling, and sensing in the present moment. For example, “I hear the wind in the trees,” “I am feeling sadness”, or “I have a pain in my shoulder”. Or simply “wind”, “sadness”, “shoulder”.

Meditation is an exercise in concentration and focus – one pointed focus. Classic meditation instruction includes descriptions of meditation postures, all of which include a straight spine. There are many reasons why posture is an integral part of meditation instruction including that a straight spine and stillness allow for focus, and a strong posture enables increased length of meditation time. But most importantly maintaining the posture is what enables the development of non-attachment or acceptance, the primary value in Buddhist teaching. This practice of non-attachment is what makes Buddhist realization possible. But non-attachment or acceptance is also important for the athlete, and subtly influences the effects that are valuable for the athlete. Types of meditation include visualization, awareness of sensory input, body scan, breath count, or conscious respiration. The purpose is to learn to quiet and focus the mind. This is an effect of meditation that is especially significant for athletes. It’s important to note, however, that for the serious meditation practitioner, the ultimate purpose of meditation is spiritual realization or enlightenment.

When you sit in meditation, you are sitting with a straight spine, practicing silence, and focusing your mind. This practice of restraint even one meditation period per day, trains you to be able to detach from normal physical preferences during the meditation period and to contain emotions. It requires the ability to be present with the self in silence, and it requires non-attachment to mental and physical preferences. The ability to increase focus and maintain concentration takes place slowly over time. These invaluable changes are taking place mostly out of awareness. Changes can take place because of intent called active changes, or they can take place out of awareness solely due to the practice which are called passive changes. These passive changes are noticed at some later time perhaps to the surprise of the practitioner.

There are numerous positive effects of meditation that have been verified in extensive research and also by observation. There are physical, behavioral, psychological, emotional, and spiritual benefits of a regular and long term practice of meditation. Research shows that longer meditation periods such as 20, 30, or 40 minutes rather than 5 or 10 minutes, and the longer the period of time that meditation has been included in a daily schedule such as 6 months, 1 year, or longer, determine the kind of results and the length that the results last. However, even learning to focus and improve concentration in a meditation practice can have a positive impact on athletic goals.

Psychological Benefits: Psychological benefits observed in meditation research studies include reduced stress, anxiety, depression, and obsessive thinking tendencies. Other benefits have been observed in long term meditation practitioners and in Buddhist meditation literature such as increase in focus, and an increase in the ability to stabilize, contain, and manage emotions. (Altered Traits by Goleman and Davidson and The Practice of Perfection by Robert Aitken.) There can also be an increase in positive self perception: increased understanding of the self, increased self esteem, and perceiving ones strengths and weakness in a more accurate perspective. With advanced meditation training, there can be a diminishment of the importance of the self, a humility, or letting go of the ego self.

Physical Benefits: There are numerous physical benefits from a long term practice of meditation that can be predicted or intuited from classic Buddhist literature and current research including a reduction in anxiety, and an increase in relaxation, improved sleep, and increase in motivation and energy.

It’s beginning to be acknowledged that meditation and mindfulness can benefit athletes in many ways. They both can help to maximize abilities and minimize obstacles. Meditation and mindfulness can increase focus and concentration, increase motivation for participation in exercise and strengthening, increase tolerance of the pain of conditioning, and increase perseverance and endurance.

I have noticed many changes from my own long term practice of meditation, and I think especially from the three months I spent at Green Gulch. Some amount of these qualities are required in order to maintain the schedule at Green Gulch for such an extended period of time: patience, discipline, responsibility, determination, perseverance, and endurance. And — a regular, consistent mindfulness and meditation practice inevitably results in the further development of these exact qualities.

When I started Tae Kwon Do training, I didn’t realize that my meditation experience would be relevant, let alone extremely helpful to Tae Kwon Do. It’s interesting that in Tae Kwon Do there is a “black belt philosophy” for each belt color: focus, consistency, goal setting, cooperation, self control, enthusiasm, perseverance, respect, and leadership. It is part of the training to focus on these qualities as one progresses. These qualities and the changes that I have observed from my meditation practice and from meditation during retreat at Green Gulch, have enabled me to persevere in developing my skill, endure challenging workouts, and succeed with accomplishments that have been surprising given my age.

The qualities that are developed from meditation practice over a period of time and from retreat experiences are invaluable to athletic pursuits. Like Colin O’Brady’s experience when he finished walking solo and pulling a 375 pound sled across Antarctica, like the six extreme athletes who rowed across Drakes Passage from South America to Antarctica, like those who spent the focus of their adult lives chasing The 100 Foot Wave, like Alex Honnold who climbed El Capitan’s 3,000 foot vertical rock face in Yosemite National Park in 2017, all of us can experience the rewards of our efforts, great or small, as we pursue our own challenging personal physical goals. Mindfulness and meditation will prove to be the hidden, perhaps secret, skills that will facilitate our accomplishments.